Saint Francis Tulsa Tough 2012 (Title Sponsor: Saint Francis Health Systems)
Traveling from Southern California to Tulsa, Oklahoma is an event in and of itself, never-mind spending a weekend among thousands of enthusiastic, and somewhat intoxicated, ok, heavily intoxicated cycling fanatics! It was a weekend to be remembered and that is an understatement.
The annual Tulsa Tough is one of the most anticipated races of the season, and the 2012 Saint Francis Tulsa Tough did not disappoint. Historically, it has been highly regarded as a fast-paced, energetic, spectator-friendly race, and attracts many of the top ranked pros (and fans) each year. As a USA Cycling highlighted event, all three-race days received a spot in the National Criterium Calendar. One of the events that separated The Tulsa Tough race weekend from any other race weekend was the back to back GranFondo rides which covered more than 200 miles of road, and allowed riders of all levels to join in the fun. They also hosted a Townie Ride which was an 8-mile loop with a short cut for those who only wanted to ride 5 miles (Tiny Townie). The Executive Committee really seemed to go out of their way to get the whole city involved and interested in the sport of Cycling. In addition to the great community race events, Tulsa Tough is known for their Cry Baby Hill race, which is arguably the most infamous event of the weekend. I quickly learned why this particular race commands so much attention, and will likely find all future criteriums slightly boring.
I arrived in Tulsa on Friday at 5:00 PM from Orange County, CA, and I did not camouflage well with my CyclingIllustarted.com paraphernalia. I made my way to baggage claim to meet my business partner and photographer for our site, Danny Munson; he had arrived a little earlier, and had already rented a car. When you are from Orange County, you don’t realize how isolated you are from the ‘real world’ until you land in a place like Tulsa. The hospitality and friendliness of the people in Tulsa caught my attention immediately.
We hustled to our hotel, The Courtyard Marriott, knowing we only had a short time before the racing would begin; we wanted to organize our equipment beforehand. The Courtyard Marriott was part of Tulsa’s relatively recent focus on revitalizing the downtown area. Although converted from the Historic Atlas Life building, the hotel retained some of the original building features in their rooms located on the 7th floor. Who knew I would get such a history lesson while in town.
After checking in, another type of conversion took place as we unpacked and set-up our temporary media room for the weekend. We had over $15,000 in camera equipment, including not only still cameras and lenses, but video equipment, phones, computers and cables to make sure we could process our media efficiently and effectively. We worked at mach speed because we were anxious to get out there; we knew would need extra time to get our bearings.
Friday night’s Blue Dome Criterium consisted of the top-level races only: Men’s Cat III, Women’s Pro I/II, Men’s Cat I/II and Men’s Pro I. The races were located in Tulsa’s Blue Dome District, which is a downtown section of the city centered around an iconic Blue Dome-like building; originally it was a 1920’s gas station that attracted locals as well as Rt. 66 travelers. Now the center of Tulsa’s young, hip, nightlife; The Blue Dome District was a place I knew I could have a great time.
We found the media area, parked our rental car, unloaded our equipment and prepared for battle. Danny truly looked like he was entering media war with his super hero camera belt, kneepads and extended lens on his camera. It was a typical race environment; we saw racers everywhere, warming up and preparing for a grueling 60-minute ride.
The Men’s Cat III was in progress as we walked around trying to locate a few shooting spots. As we approached a local bike shop, I saw a man, clearly not a racer, peddling a still bike. I could hear a humming sound but couldn’t decipher the origin until I got a little closer and saw a blender attached to the back of the seat tube. The man, peddling with determination, was powering a blender full of frozen margaritas! At this point, I knew The Tulsa Tough was a special race weekend for spectators; I was going to have some fun!
The first person we met was Shawn Brett, Tulsa Tough Executive Committee member and Director of Marketing & Development. After a brief introduction, he gave us our press passes, which permitted access to roam the streets away from spectators. This allowed us to find the best camera angles for capturing the true essence of the race. We found a nice spot to set-up; Danny prepared his camera and began to shoot the Cat III’s.
The race itself was well planned. The course was in a figure eight pattern so the fans could watch the race from one side, turn, and see the riders go by again on the other side. The first race in which we had special interest was the Women’s Pro I/II race. We watched Erica Allar (Rideclean-Patentit.com) win the sprint; Danny secured some great photos for cyclingillustrated.com. Next up was the Men’s Cat I/II, in which we had great representation from Southern California. In a weird way, it almost felt as though we were home with so many familiar faces and kits! As the crowd started to gather, we watched Kayle Leogrande clinch a win by out-sprinting the field for MMRI’s first victory.
While Danny shot the Cat I/II race, I tried to locate another opportunity for great photos. I noticed a Mexican food restaurant, El Guapo’s Cantina, which had a nice rooftop deck. I encouraged Danny to head up there with the 5,000 pounds of equipment we were carrying so we could acquire some great overhead shots of the race; I won’t lie, the cold cerveza was looking good too!
As we walked through the restaurant, the employees were attentive and excited to have the “press” in their restaurant. We were ushered to a great location on the rooftop to take our shots, yet another example of the fantastic Tulsa hospitality. From this new perspective, I realized the fan involvement was quite impressive; I’ve truly never witnessed a town so into a race. Every restaurant and bar was full, and courtesy of McNellie’s Beer Garden, people were enjoying beers and drinks right on the street. It was a small and much more athletic version of Vegas, without the fights and arrests. I was actually surprised that this environment, with a plethora of free-flowing booze, didn’t incur more police activity. It was a fun, and dare I say, family environment; everyone was just having a good time and maintaining the peace.
The Men’s Pro race began around 9PM, and with a $12,000 prize; I was ready to see some great racing. Danny and I watched Ken Hanson (Optum Pro Cycling p/b KBS), Brad Huff (Jelly Belly) and Justin Williams (CashCall Mortgage) throw down a sprint at the end of the race with Ken Hanson edging out Justin Williams to take the overall race lead; it was really exciting!
When the race finished we went back to our hotel to break down the media. We wanted to upload all of the pictures and get them on our web site for everyone to see. This is when I realized I hadn’t eaten anything since my little almond snack on the plane. While breaking down the media, I called Paul Abrahams, Director of the CashCall Mortgage pro men’s team, to see if he wanted to grab a beer and a bite to eat. Now approaching 11:00 at night, we hustled to meet him at a local pizza joint called, Joe Momma’s. We socialized a bit and discussed the great experience of the race, especially how well CashCall Mortgage performed.
After kicking back a beer and having a quick bite to eat, we ventured back to the hotel and continued to break down media until about 2AM, when we were able to make our first post. It was a long day, but a very fun day because of the festivities and energy of the city.
The next morning, starting at 5AM, they had the GranFondo rides, in which a lot of the pro riders, like Brad Huff (Jelly Belly), joined. The GranFondo covered distances of 24 to 127 miles, and unique to The Tulsa Tough, was the back to back days of GranFondo rides, each day with different routes. The serious riders tackled both days and covered more than 200 miles; this resulted in earning a special jersey known as “The Deuce” if they finished in less than 5 hours each day. It was great to see the pro riders get involved because events like this make cycling tangible; kids and adults alike can talk to, and ride with, some of the greatest athletes in the sport!
After getting to bed so late the night before, we woke up at about 11:00 on Saturday. We quickly grabbed a bite to eat and headed out to Brady Village. The Brady Village Criterium was located in Tulsa’s Brady Arts District, another section of Tulsa full of restaurants and bars as well as art galleries. The course was longer with a slight rise, and at the top there were 3 or 4 bars located on the outside right-hand turn. By noon, they were full of people walking around with 40oz. beers and other drinks. Having just woken up, I couldn’t believe it was already getting crazy! Along the main strip, people were starting to congregate across the 500-meter stretch on either side of the start-finish. We spent most of the day scoping out the course for the best photography locations, and networking with other photographers, riders and fans. We wanted to let everyone know that cyclingillustrated.com was in the house and covering the weekend’s events.
The first race we covered was the Women’s Pro I/II, which was clinched by Robin Farina (NOW Energy). Next, we watched Matt Stephens (Elbowz Racing) catch a break in the Men’s Cat I/II with Jonathan Barnes (DNA Racing). Stephens managed to stay away and won the sprint, securing a first win for Elbowz Racing. Kayle Leogrande (MMRI) won the bunch sprint and became the overall race leader for that category. We obtained a lot of great images from those races, and similar to the day before, the fans were drinking in the street and having a good time, although it wasn’t quite as congested as the Blue Dome Crit. It seemed as though most of the spectators had a good grasp of the sport despite their outward appearances of being there for the party; it was really cool to see.
The pro race was fascinating to watch as Luis Amaran (Jamis/Sutter Home) got into a break, and stayed away for 20-minutes by himself to win the race solo. When a rider can stay away for 20-minutes by himself, and the pro field can’t draw him back, you know you have just witnessed something special. Amaran was a beast, and it was a very happy moment for Jamis/Sutter Home. During the pro race, the bars were totally full and people lined the course for 200 meters, hooting and hollering when the riders passed. The fans seemed to give the riders a nice energy boost; it was another well-organized race. We finished the night by uploading pictures, making a post to the web site and hitting the pillow around 2AM.
The final day of racing consisted of the much-anticipated River Parks “Cry Baby Hill” events. Throughout the weekend we kept hearing, “Wait until Cry Baby Hill”. I was unsure of what to expect, as it was my first time in Tulsa, but it didn’t take long for me to realize the reason for the hype. Before we left the hotel, we interviewed Coryn Rivera (Exergy Twenty12) for Cyclingillustrated’s “The Conversation”. She is a phenomenal rider and holder of 43 National Titles; I was thankful to have bumped into her the day before so I could secure this important interview. I squeezed in the interview nice early, so after slamming a coffee we left for a day of racing. We arrived early at around 10:30 to check out the course, find our bearings and watch one of Danny’s friends compete in the Men’s Cat IV. The course followed a long walking trail next to the Arkansas River, and it contained the dreaded Cry Baby Hill; sure to test even the strongest of riders. Each year this event establishes the “Tulsa Tough”. There were massive tents set up along the course with free food and swimming pools full of beverages for the riders. Hundreds of people flocked to the tents to eat and rehydrate; it was fun to see, and talk to, so many participants and fans.
Danny and I walked the entire course and arrived at Cry Baby Hill for the first time at 11:00. The Men’s Cat IV was in progress and the crowd began to grow. I remember thinking that all of the commentary I heard regarding Cry Baby Hill was spot-on; these people were crazy standing in the street so close to the riders!!
There was a bar on Main Street called, “The Soundpony”, known for hosting original and free live music and displaying the motto “Magic served by the pint”. Their employees were dressed up as referees complete with headbands and whistles, and they covered the hill to keep the crowd under control. In their effort to keep everyone off the road they handed out yellow and red cards to spectators that didn’t adhere to the rules. Once served with a yellow or red card, one had to sit in a big tub and get soaked. The hill was complete organized chaos including live music and hundreds of party-going fans; even the riders would come through laughing and having a great time. Occasionally, a rider would give up and throw in the towel to which the fans would respond by handing him a beer so he could slam it while going up the hill; it was as though it was a sign that he was done racing and ready to party with the fans.
We watched the Women’s Pro I/II race during which Alison Powers (NOW Cycling) got away early and won solo; clearly the energy on Cry Baby Hill was propelling. The Men’s Cat II was incredibly exciting as Matt Brandt (Gateway/Harley Davidson) pulled off the win by shocking the field after staying together the whole race. Finally, in the Men’s Pro race, we watched Eric Marcotte (Elbowz Racing) get into a break with four other riders and end up winning by 1 second. He truly turned his body inside out and snagged a big win for Elbowz Racing.
Oddly enough, the party on the hill ended just as fast as it began. As soon as the race was over, everyone disbursed and headed home. Having completed my first experience on Cry Baby Hill, I would describe it as what you see when you watch the Tour de France, only way more alcohol and wild costumes. There was little room for the riders to pass; yet they seemed to love it and gain energy rather than grow irritated. Throughout the day, I never witnessed a fight or an arrest, only an ambulance ride for a victim of Cry Baby partying.
Overall, The Tulsa Tough was an incredible series of events to be remembered. As a racer, it’s an experience to add to a bucket list, and as a fan, it’s one of the best races of the season to watch live. I encourage everyone to go check it out.